The Museum of Family History
Education and Research Center
What Was Ellis Island Like?
Island: Port of Immigration, Main Floor
The majority of
our family members who wished to immigrate into the United
States did so through Ellis Island. There they had to undergo
a rigorous inspection process, as the United States allowed in
only those people they felt wouldn't be a burden to the country.
For first- and
second-class passengers, the immigration officers would
actually come on board the ship and examine the passengers upon
arrival. For those in third-class, or steerage, they would
often have to wait for days before disembarking. At that time
they would have to board a barge-like vessel, neither heated
in the winter, nor cooled in summer, which would take them to
the Island itself. There they would wait until groups of
perhaps thirty at a time would disembark and enter into the
main building to begin the inspection process.
Most of those who arrived at Ellis Island made it through the
process successfully. As soon as they entered the Great Hall,
they began to be inspected by a line of medical examiners.
They had a certificate (a "landing card") pinned to their
chest before they entered. This would act as a health
certificate (they needed to be vaccinated before leaving the
ship). The number of the certificate would also be used to
cross-reference their names on the ship’s passenger list, or
this Thinking Exercise, imagine that you are a young person
who is immigrating with your family. All of you are standing
in a long line within the Great Hall, waiting to be
interviewed by one of the inspectors at Ellis Island.
Are there a lot of immigrants like you waiting online to be
interviewed? Look around the Great Hall and say what you see.
How are people dressed? What are they carrying with them?
Is there a lot of noise in the Great Hall? What do you
Do you recognize
any of the languages that are being spoken?
How are you
feeling? Are you nervous? Is your family nervous?
Are you talking
with any of your family members or fellow immigrants while
you're waiting, or are you quiet and keeping to yourself?
What are you
thinking? What do you think your parents are thinking?
Each immigrant had to be met by a "contact," usually a family
member or sponsor. Who in your family would you like to be
your contact? Who would be waiting for you and your family
when you arrived at Ellis Island?
photos courtesy of
the U.S. National Park Service.
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